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BBC must compete and compare to grow: Tony Hall

MUMBAI: Speaking at the ‘Future of the Licence Fee’ seminar at City University London, BBC director-general Tony Hall has outlined plans for the pubcaster to adopt a mantra of ‘compete or compare’ including raising the possibility of major changes to BBC in-house production.

Hall also announced a desire to extend competition where it works across the BBC, and where it is not appropriate, to make greater use of comparisons with the best practice in the mark.

Hall stated: “‘Compete or Compare’. That is our strategy. Competition is good for the BBC and I want more of it. I want proper competition in programme supply, overturning the current system that no longer works as it should.

“I want a less regulated system that ensures that both our own BBC producers and those of the independent sector have creative freedom. I want a level playing-field between BBC producers and independent ones.

“I want both a BBC production powerhouse that is a beacon for creativity, risk-taking and quality; and an amazing, world-beating independent sector. I want a system that supports British content and that keeps the UK competitive in a global market.”

This competition, hall added. is going to help make the BBC as efficient as any broadcaster in the country. But he was also clear that the UK pubcaster is not going to sacrifice quality for price.

He noted that Britain has one of the most competitive media markets in the world. It’s no coincidence that it’s also one of the most successful.

“Every day, viewers, listeners and users in the UK have the opportunity to choose freely from hundreds of television channels, hundreds of radio stations and millions of websites. The fact that they choose the BBC 140 million times a day is a tribute to our quality, not a sign of a lack of competition.”

Hall also observed that the BBC is a smaller part of broadcasting now; the licence fee is 25 per cent of all TV and radio revenues in the UK. Some of the organisations it is now competing with are global giants by comparison.

“The fact that our audience share has held up so well over 20 years is a tribute to how well we turn the licence fee into distinctive programmes and services that audiences value, not a sign of a lack of competition.

“Competition works just as you would expect. We do well. Others have to compete. They raise their game. They challenge us. We respond. Competition spurs us all on. It’s better for Britain.”

So he believes in competition as a tool to be used wherever it can make the BBC better, and improve what is given to the public. The key area for him is the way the BBC’s programmes are made.

However he feels that this very success has produced the need for change. The UK he noted is enjoying a golden moment. The best of British talent and programming is flourishing at home and abroad.

Partly as a result, the production sector in the UK has changed rapidly. The sector is far more consolidated than it used to be, with a small number of super-producers now dominating the supply of content to UK public service broadcasters and with many new outlets for their ideas.

US capital has spotted this and swooped.

In the last few weeks, tectonic plates have been moving. 21st Century Fox and Apollo Global Management agreed to merge Shine and Endemol—two of the biggest producers here. Discovery and Liberty Global have acquired All3Media. Warner are now going to rebrand their previous indie acquisition, Shed, as Warner Brothers UK.

At the same time, he noted that global broadcasters are also buying each other. “You can feel the market changing. Even the biggest broadcasters in the world are feeling the need for allies. This process is unlikely to be at an end. In this new environment, ‘managed competition’ produces an increasingly distorted market,” he warned.

He noted that with managed competition, BBC Production has only one buyer—BBC Commissioning—which inevitably constrains its opportunities. More importantly, it’s limited in the kinds of commercial deals it can make. It can’t compete globally in the way that big independent studios can.

He added that both big independent producers and BBC Production should be able to stand on their own feet.

“We are going to work with our many partners to develop our plans for the future supply of programmes. These are far from final proposals. We will put them to the BBC Trust to form part of their own review of supply this autumn. And it will take a new Charter to put them into effect.

“But I want whatever model we agree to follow three principles.”

First, the BBC must guarantee the secure supply of brilliant and innovative new programmes across the full range of BBC broadcasting. And that includes the sort of programmes that don’t have global commercial appeal as well as those that do.

He wants commissioners to be able to choose from the best ideas, from independent producers and BBC Production. “They must have them at a price we can afford. This is about us having the next ‘Sherlock’, the next ‘Strictly’, the next ‘Springwatch’ and the next ‘Shetland’—a fantastic mix from independent and BBC producers.

“It is also about us having challenging factual programmes that over time the market may no longer find it attractive to supply. And the live skills that allow us to cover, say, a national funeral at a moment’s notice.

“Second, we must grow this country’s creative sector, right across the UK. We are world-beating at television and I want us to stay that way. I’m not interested in dividing up a smaller cake in different ways. I want a bigger cake for us all.

“The ownership of intellectual property—whether by the BBC or independent producers—is a fundamental of the future across all industries. It is how we will help to take Britain to the world and bring the credit and the investment back to this country.

“And then there is the third principle. Value for money.

“Any new system must obtain value for money for the licence fee payer. When the BBC owns the rights to programmes we can return the full commercial value of them to the UK licence fee payer, to invest in new programmes.”

Managed competition, he added, has also helped to keep costs down.

“Free competition should intensify this. But it must be fair competition, too. “We must make sure we don’t use the licence fee to compete unfairly or subsidise commercial activity. So I want to challenge the ‘managed’ part of managed competition.”

He said that proper competition and entrepreneurialism requires a level playing field. “We should have regulation in the TV supply market only where it’s needed so that we can let creativity and innovation flourish.”

His aim in all this work is a world-class BBC. Not a low-rent BBC. This is a crucial distinction and one that he said the BBC’s most vociferous critics sometimes fail to understand. “Value for money is what matters—not to be the cheapest, but the most efficient for the quality we are trying to achieve.”

For him the great joy of coming back to work for the BBC was to be reminded of how many great things it does, how many great people it employs, and how hard it works to spend the public’s money wisely. “The great joy of being director-general has been to discover how much more we can still do.”

But he also said that if the BBC ever becomes a company of bureaucrats that happens to make some broadcast output, he will have failed because the way the BBC manages itself will have overwhelmed what it does.

“Instead we are going to be led by what we do best. By our creativity. We are going to trust it. We are going to let it speak for us. A confident BBC broadcasting to the world, open to the world. The greatest cultural force in Britain.”